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Book Review: The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands and Brushstrokes and Glances 

click to enlarge The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, Nick Flynn, Graywolf, 2011, $22.
  • The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, Nick Flynn, Graywolf, 2011, $22.
New releases by award-winning Hudson Valley writers Nick Flynn (PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry) and Djelloul Marbrook (Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize) showcase the current trend of project-based poetry books, each containing a unified theme. A pastiche of lyric-fragments partially culled from literary, government, and mass media sources, Flynn’s The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands investigates forces of inhumanity both individual and large-scale. In Brushstrokes and Glances , Marbrook, son and nephew, respectively, of 20th-century painters Juanita Rice Guccione and I. Rice Pereira, combines technical precision with imagistic inventiveness to render an intimate benediction in praise of fine art.

Flynn is no stranger to concept books, having based a previous poetry collection, Blind Huber (2002), upon an eponymous 18th-century beekeeper. His more wide-ranging recent volume oscillates between reminiscences of personal extremity (“Kedge,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) and the history of persecution (“Jesus Knew,” “Air,” “Imagination,” “Earth”). A unifying backbeat arising from the recurrent addressee “capt’n” (“twisted” from Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” according to author endnotes) indicts state-sanctioned brutality, whether as documented in police logs or military memoranda. An excerpt from the 12-section “Fire,” whose principal speaker confesses to child molestation and arson, reads: “capt’n, we can do as we wish, we can do / as we wish with the body / but we cannot leave marks—capt’n I’m / trying to get this right.”

The travesty of Abu Ghraib engulfs The Captain Asks like relentless fog, intermittently lifting to reveal political culpability. Drawn directly from statements made by detainees, “Seven Testimonies (Redacted)” uses nursery-rhyme-like cadences and repetitions to potently portray physical regression and incoherent mentality resulting from extreme deprivation. A related metrical strategy unfolds in “Saudade” (loosely, Portuguese for “phantom desire”) through richly reconstituted nautical references, as in the lines “this boat, this broken boat—beam, stem, keel, / oar—this beach littered with broken / boats—broken beam.” Written to accompany photographs, this melodious personal lyric celebrates the bohemian enclave of Provincetown, Massachusetts.
click to enlarge Brushstrokes and Glances, Djelloul Marbrook, Deerbrook, 2010, $16.95.
  • Brushstrokes and Glances, Djelloul Marbrook, Deerbrook, 2010, $16.95.

Offering wry commentary on that same community (“Provincetown”), Brushstrokes and Glances brims with well-made poems in which irony and refinement collide. Throughout the collection, knowledgeable speakers reach beyond mere description to inhabit and enlarge artworks as well as their origins and exhibition spaces. Marbrook gained literary fame as a septuagenarian with his 2008 collection Far from Algiers (from where he hails). In this outing, he mixes childhood memories (“A Jar of Marsala,” “My Mother’s Paintings,” “An Artist Dies,” “Giorgio Morandi”) with mature-adult sensibility as inspired by regular, worshipful visits to museums in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Washington, DC (“Goya in iPodia,” “Distraction,” “Picasso’s Bull,” “By the Pool of The Frick,” “Pierre Bonnard’s Late Interiors,” “The Guard Looks Away”).

Marbrook regards “painting as a way of understanding life,” as he told NPR interviewer Paul Elisha. The poet likewise questions how creative processes overlap, whether contemplating forgeries (“Never Is”) or masterpieces: “I think like Seurat paints / coloring molecules in air” (“Georges Seurat”). Poems that ponder antiquities (“Accordion of Worlds,” “The Long Eyes of Egyptians”) seek to unite “how life is between comets” (“In a Time of Spin”). “Among Broken Statues” declares: “When the future started I must have missed it. / Just as well, it has never been as urgent / as the past, which I have no desire to undo / but a grand compulsion to understand.” Brushstrokes and Glances affably invites readers to share in its quest for art-related meaning.

Djelloul Marbrook will read with Pascale Petit at Bright Hill Literary Center in Treadwell on 4/21 at 7pm.

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